Hitting the mark
“Toilet: Ek Prem Katha” (Toilet: A love story) has an unlikely premise, even for a Bollywood film. The dashing hero, played by Akshay Kumar (above), is torn between his wife, who threatens to divorce him unless he installs a toilet in their home, and his father, who considers an indoor toilet to be sinful. When the couple eventually files for divorce, it becomes a primetime news item. Women go on a cooking strike. Officials fast-track a toilet-building subsidy almost overnight. It’s compelling stuff: now one of the highest grossing Hindi films of 2017, it also earned an accolade on Twitter from India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has pledged $30bn to rid the country of open defecation by 2019.
“I wish Sharon had wiped all of you out.” These words, uttered in “Qadiya Raqm 23” (“The Insult”) by a Christian to a Muslim Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, reignite a sectarian feud dating back to the civil war. It won an award at its premiere at the Venice film festival and has been selected as Lebanon’s entry for the Oscars, but when the director, Ziad Doueiri, returned to Beirut he was arrested and forced to appear before a military court on old charges (the ostensible reason was that he shot his 2012 film, “The Attack”, in Israel). Doueiri claims his arrest was an attempt to prevent the release of the film, which has attracted huge crowds and is pushing locals to talk about the dormant enmities in their society.
Laugh like everyone’s watching
The contemporary Arab world can seem a humourless place. Egyptians lost their laugh under president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who pulled the plug on his chief satirist, Bassem Youssef. But once a week, there is still relief from the heat, violence and corruption when Ahmed Al-Basheer, a 33-year-old journalist, ridicules the political and religious elite of Iraq. He appeals to a new liberal youth, disillusioned with ethno-sectarian politicians and yearning for a multi-ethnic, multi-faith society. Though Sunni himself, his team reflects the country’s broad make-up – Kurdish, Shia and Turkmen. Banned from national television and under threat in Iraq, he broadcasts from Amman, the Jordanian capital, via YouTube. He has become so popular that he now echoes Kurdish leaders demanding independence for his own people, the Bashiris.
Fishing for justice
Taiji, a rusting harbour town on Japan’s southern coast, is one of the few places in the world where fishermen legally kill dolphins for meat. Critics say the hunts, in which the animals are driven into a cove and butchered, are cruel and unnecessary. Taiji has been the subject of worldwide opprobrium since “The Cove”, a documentary about the town, won an Oscar in 2010. Megumi Sasaki thought it was skewed and spent six years trying to set the record straight. Her own documentary, “Okujirasama” (“A Whale of a Tale”), explaining the 400-year-old tradition, is showing in Japan. The release coincides with the hunting season, which began in September, undeterred by the steady trickle of environmental protesters who arrive every year determined to stop it.
As a general election approaches in Italy, hundreds of thousands of voters are glued to their mobile screens and the slick videos produced by the media-savvy Five Star Movement (M5S), founded by comedian Beppe Grillo. The live-streamed rallies and interviews with parliamentarians are posted hourly to Youtube and Facebook. Their appeal has proved considerable, particularly among young voters – one reason the M5S edging ahead of the mainstream, centre-left Democratic Party (PD) in the polls. At last count, Grillo’s YouTube channel had 280,750 subscribers, against just 8,242 who had signed up to that of the PD’s leader, Matteo Renzi. The M5S parliamentary group’s channel has almost a hundred times more followers than the PD’s.
Dancing down a fine line
It may have won the Silver Lion at this year’s Venice film festival, but “Foxtrot” has benefitted more from political controversy than critical acclaim. Repeated broadsides from Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev who, without watching the film, attacked it for “slandering the name of Israel” and its army, have drawn thousands of unlikely viewers to the cinemas. One soldier on leave remarked that the dream-like sequences showing army life were “too artistic and surreal to be political.” The story of two parents’ inability to deal with their son’s accidental death while on military service touches every father and mother’s deepest fears. In that sense at least, it is apolitical. But in Israel, where nearly everyone serves in the army and then becomes a soldier’s parent, everything is political.